'Gate' To Nowhere

Without a clear vision, Roman Polanski fails at all he tries in "The Ninth Gate.' And star Johnny Depp doesn't try much at all

March 10, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

A lot of fascinating stuff must have happened in gates one through eight, because there sure isn't much left to tell in nine.

"The Ninth Gate" is a film that really has no idea what it wants to be, so it tries a little of everything, and does nothing very well. It's a horror movie about the devil where the only horrifying thing is realizing how much time you've invested. It's a black comedy where none of the actors seem in on the joke. It's a film about the world of rare books where a supposed "expert" treats a priceless 17th-century volume with the sort of care usually reserved for that second-hand Stephen King paperback you picked up from Goodwill. And it's a mystery where the only mystery is how this could be the same director responsible for "Rosemary's Baby."

Johnny Depp plays Dean Corso, who fancies himself sort of the Indiana Jones of the rare book world, only without the moral compass. We first see him appraising a collection for some unsuspecting amateurs, who are so glad to hear their collection is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that they're happy to let Corso walk off with the only volume that's really worth anything.

Obviously, the goateed Corso is willing to do anything in his pursuit of rare volumes (except wear gloves, a mandatory piece of apparel when dirt from your hands could knock a few thousand dollars off the price of a book in seconds). Which means he's the perfect candidate when a mysterious, wealthy collector named Boris Balkan (Frank Langella, in full sleazeball mode) decides there's this book he's simply got to have.

Or, more precisely, three books -- the only known copies of "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows," an instruction manual written by a Venetian devil worshiper purportedly under the direction of Lucifer.

Balkan is convinced only one of the three copies is authentic. He's already acquired one -- from a collector who committed suicide the day after selling it -- and hires Corso to locate the other two, determine which is the authentic copy and ensure it's in Balkan's possession.

And what, exactly, will this book do?

Afraid you're going to have to sit through two hours of movie to answer that one, but I'll tell you this much: It involves lots of fire and some decidedly subterranean housing.

All of this could look quite creepy up on the movie screen, and director Roman Polanski isn't above throwing every possible technique up there, on the off-chance that a few might stick. One of the few that does is Corso's dawning realization that each of the three copies is slightly different -- differences only apparent when the accompanying illustrations are examined ever-so-carefully. The differences make for one of the few genuinely eerie sequences in the film.

There's also an entertaining encounter with a twin pair of Spanish book dealers who sold one of the copies. Both are played by Jose Lopez Rodero, who almost alone among the cast seems to be having fun with his role(s).

But most of what Polanski trots out simply falls flat. Seemingly profound mysteries are solved with ridiculous ease.

Composer Wojciech Kilar's score telegraphs every twist and spends most of the film rising to a crescendo, the better to note that something important has just happened. And by the end of the film, Corso has turned from cold-hearted bookworm to protector of the human race, a change that simply doesn't seem in character.

Doing no one any favors is Depp, who races through the film always displaying the sort of clueless demeanor usually reserved for newborns; one gets the feeling he realized early on that this movie was going nowhere and didn't want to do anything to delay its arrival.

Others in the cast include Lena Olin as the widow of the man who sold Balkan the book (you know she's evil because she wears garters and seduces Corso); Barbara Jefford as a wheelchair-bound German devil expert; and Emmanuelle Seigner (aka Mrs. Roman Polanski) as Corso's enigmatic guardian angel, whose main job is to look ethereal, talk in clipped sentences and smirk a lot.

"The Ninth Gate" is meant to be a cautionary tale about dancing with the devil. Instead, with its simplistic story line and smorgasbord of conflicting styles, it's a cautionary tale about a director without a clear vision of what he's after.

`The Ninth Gate'

Starring Johnny Depp, Frank Langella and Lena Olin

Directed by Roman Polanski

Released by Artisan Entertainment

Rated R (Language, nudity, satanic menace)

Running time 127 minutes

Sun score *1/2

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